While The OA did, as I suspected, leave the liminal space of the fantastic and dive headfirst into actual supernatural narrative in Part 2, the show improved so much that the particular tension from an unreliable narrator wasn’t needed. We could still argue about whether the show is original enough to be worth watching for most SF/F buffs–and about exactly where that line falls, now that the plot is complicated enough that I’ve never seen all those particular tropes combined in just this way–but I’d rather point out some of the writing techniques the show used well this time.
An actually mysterious beginning
Part 2 opens with characters we don’t know, in a dimension we don’t know: specifically, with a private eye, a desperate client, and a missing girl who is a female version of Buck, one of the OA’s listeners in Part 1. This beginning wouldn’t work half so well without Kingsley Ben-Adir as the private eye protagonist, inhabiting the character so completely and (it seems) effortlessly. He has some help from the writing, though. In this new season, we start again with a mystery, but a mystery seen through the eyes of a character who doesn’t know the answers. Remember, the mystery in Part 1 is the story of Prairie’s captivity, but Prairie knows her own history already, and it’s hard to over-emphasize how that drains a narrative of urgency. Even when Prairie arrives in Part 2, she doesn’t have the memories of her alternate self, so she doesn’t have the answers, either. Without answers, our main characters can ricochet from stressed to desperate and back again. Thank God.
So why start with Karim, our private eye, and not the characters we know? This allows the writers to employ a technique that science-fiction and fantasy novels use all the time: the gradual widening of the world. Personally, this is one of my favorite things about speculative fiction, because it’s often tied to a sense of wonder that comes with each step farther into the unknown. The idea is to start very simply, with a situation that is small and somewhat ordinary (in this case, a bare three characters in a well-known fictional plot: private eye, client, missing) and to gradually let the story open up into something bigger and weirder. It’s as if the audience is climbing a mountain through layers of cloud and each new break in the fog allows them to glimpse a wider world that is not only stunning, but also redefines each previous view. They could only do this with a new character, because our returning friends are already deeply steeped in weirdness.
An end to static situations
Exactly how many static (read: unchanging) situations were featured in Part 1? Let’s see: there’s Prairie’s captivity in the past; the boys listening to her story in the present, and the gradual revelation of how horrible their home lives really are without any real change to them; and Prairie’s adoptive parents’ doubts about her sanity (and who can blame them, when she literally goes blank in every scene with them in it?). In fact, looking back, Part 1 seems to completely confuse “bit by bit revelation” with “plot.” Sorry, but no. Learning new information is exposition; goals, conflicts, decisions, and disasters that change the situations the characters are in (leading to new goals, etc.) is plot. In a book it would be much harder to disguise exposition as forward motion, but since actors were acting it out–wow! It kind of looked like plot. But when you compare it to the ever-changing situations in Part 2, the steady progress towards ultimate goals and confrontations, it’s easy to see the difference.
Of course, the devil’s advocate in my head is telling me that Part 2 could move so quickly only because of all the set-up and character development in Part 1. To which I say, yes, but it’s better to do them at the same time. Go watch Battlestar Galactica, Killjoys, Dark Matter, Stranger Things, etc. to see how.